Scott Walker’s gloomy pitch for the presidency

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
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Scott Walker speaks at a grassroots rally in Concord, N.H. in March (Photo: Darren McCollester/Getty)

CONCORD, NH — Scott Walker is worried.

He’s worried about America. He’s worried about his kids and his grandchildren, and everyone else’s. He’s worried about Islamic radicalism. He’s worried about too many people being on food stamps.

In a recent speech here, the Wisconsin governor used the word “worry” or “worried” 12 times in the space of 15 minutes.

“As a parent today, I’m worried. I’m worried for our country,” Walker told a few hundred conservative activists in a darkened amphitheater, standing in front of a red stage curtain. “I’m worried about my sons and your sons and daughters, my nieces and your nieces and nephews and grandsons and granddaughters, and I’m worried that we’re headed down that same path that worried me years ago in my own state.”

Walker’s message, just a few months into his nascent (and still unofficial) presidential campaign, has been largely a negative one. There is an undertone of testiness in his stump speech, leavened with chest-swelling machismo fueled by his defeat of a recall effort in 2012 and his re-election in 2014.

He sounds alternately bitter and boastful about the opposition to his reforms in Wisconsin and the protests that dominated Madison leading up to the recall. The attempt by Walker’s opponents to recall him was a dramatic chapter in political history, and his survival has been a real accomplishment, but it’s left him with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. In January, he went on at length during an event in Iowa about how he and his family had received death threats, even telling the crowd that someone told him “they would gut my wife like a deer.”

Walker is also angry about people in America who he thinks are on the take from their fellow taxpayers. It’s here that his message has a bit of a retro feel, reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments in the 2012 presidential election that did such damage to his candidacy. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who in 2012 was Romney’s running mate, talked quite often during the 2010 election season about his concern that too many Americans were becoming “takers” rather than “makers.”

But Ryan later distanced himself from such rhetoric , conceding in a book he published last year that complaining about people receiving government benefits is “just lumping people in this category without any regard for their personal stories.”

“It sounds like we’re saying that people who are struggling are deadbeats, as if they haven’t made it already or aren’t trying hard enough,” Ryan wrote. He has focused more of his attention and energy since the 2012 election on seeking to understand the challenges of people living in poverty and proposing solutions to help them with their challenges.

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A rally calling for the recall of Gov. Walker in January 2012. (Photo: John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal/AP)

Here in New Hampshire, however, Walker — speaking to a largely white, older audience — riffed for a few minutes on the theme of how too many people in America are receiving government assistance.

“You know, this president and his allies tend to measure success in government by how many people are dependent on government, by how many people are on Medicaid and food stamps and unemployment. We, we should measure success by just the opposite, on how many people are no longer dependent on the government, right?” Walker said.

He paused slightly, waiting for the applause, and then, as it came, he nodded knowingly.

“When I was a growing up in that small town of Delavan, I don’t ever remember one of my classmates saying to me, ‘Hey, Scott, someday when I grow up, I want to be dependent on the government.’ Right? Nobody signed my yearbook, ‘Dear Scott, good luck becoming dependent on the government,’” Walker said.

It is the type of messaging that Ryan warned in his book makes Republicans sound as if they think Americans receiving federal help have no other ambition than to be “deadbeats.”

Walker’s message on foreign policy is also gloomy. “When you see those images of the Jordanian who was burned alive in a cage, when you see the beheadings of the Christians from Egypt or others from around the world, I got to tell you, that makes me worried not just for myself and my country. It makes me worried for my children and your children, and anyone else who would dare to travel around this world. And that’s not right,” Walker said.

He drew the loudest cheers of the day in Concord when he railed against President Obama’s national security policies. Walker said that he was coining a new term to describe his plans for the issue.

“Something that’s heavy on my heart these days is safety. Safety. You know I don’t call it national security. I call it safety,” he said.

Walker’s voice rose as he described what he sees as Obama’s lack of resolve to confront Islamic State and terrorist threats around the world, and the crowd responded with an extended and passionate ovation.

“We need a commander in chief in this country who stands up and once and for all says, our biggest threat is radical Islamic terrorism, and we will do whatever it takes to weed it out around the world,” Walker thundered. “We need a president who will do whatever it takes, whatever it takes, who realizes we have an ally in Israel and we should start acting like it, who understands that radical Islamic terrorism is like a virus. If you don’t take it out entirely, it’s like a virus in your computer. It will keep coming back.”

And then he sounded a note that was straight out of the Bush administration’s talking points in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“I don’t know about all of you, but I’d rather take it to them than wait until it comes to us on American soil,” Walker said. (He later clarified that he was “not proposing boots on the ground … but I’m not taking it off table.”)

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Scott Walker speaks at the American Action Forum in January. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

“And so, I’m worried about where this country is headed. And I’m worried about our position in the world,” he said.

He then added a qualifier.

“But I’m an optimist!”

Walker did this twice during his remarks, detailing the many ways in which the days are dark and then adding — as if he were a magician transforming himself in the blink of an eye, with a flash and a puff of smoke — “but I’m an optimist!” When he ran through his many worries about the grandchildren and nieces and nephews, he added, “But I’m an optimist. So I’m not just worried.”

It could be that the Republican primary voters will respond to Walker’s us-versus-them, sound-the-alarm rhetoric. But he’s facing a large Republican field in which the top three likely candidates — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. — are making a different bet, that the way to win the presidency in 2016 is to carry a positive, hopeful message that aims to expand the GOP and attract new voters from constituencies that have traditionally not been strong supporters of conservatives: the working class and the poor, minorities, and single women.

“You can be a conservative. You can do it with joy in your heart. You don’t have to be angry about this. You can do it in a way that draws people toward our cause, and you can win in a purple state,” Bush said at a house party in Dover, N.H., the night before Walker’s speech in Concord. “And in this country, if you’re going to begin to solve problems, we have to win. We have to go out and reach out to people of every walk of life, not with a divisive message but one that is unifying, one that says that everybody should have a chance to rise up.”

To the extent that Walker was not already a confrontational, combative politician, he has been conditioned to be that way by his experience of nonstop, all-out partisan combat over the last four years. His red-meat approach on the trail is aimed at maximizing participation by conservative-base voters. The challenge, of course, is that in order to excite the most diehard members of either party in a presidential primary, a candidate may alienate moderates and independents, who are crucial to winning the presidency in the general election.

Rep. Rod Blum, a freshman Republican congressman from eastern Iowa, said recently that during a phone conversation with Walker, the governor boasted to him of his ability to rouse the faithful.

“He was telling me … in his elections virtually every single Republican, registered Republican in that state, voted for him. It was like 99-plus percent or something,” Blum said. “So he obviously excited the base in Wisconsin.

“He flat-out just beat the Democrats,” Blum said.

The arguments against the wisdom of this approach in a presidential election are familiar. White voters are a diminishing portion of the electorate, and a growing number of states that used to be dependably Republican are becoming swing states because of the rising influence of Latino voters.

Ironically, the argument against Walker’s approach has perhaps been best articulated by his personal friend and fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan. Ryan, in his book, was adamant that “as 2012 illustrated, focusing heavily on simply turning out our traditional coalition is a losing strategy.”

“We’ve become lazy and complacent. Instead of doing the hard work of persuading people, we’ve opted for the easy route, focusing our attention on communities where people already agree with us and trying to turn out the base,” Ryan wrote. “Preaching to the choir isn’t working, and by the way, the choir is shrinking.”